"Being There" for JFK

Posted by Grover Silcox on

I love listening to people who’ve had a brush—not just with fame, but with history.

When a person regales me with memories of living through the Great Depression, Prohibition or some transformative time before I was born, I’m all ears.

I first learned about World War II by sitting at my father’s side, listening to his war stories. He served in the Philippines and New Guinea in 1943. He talked about clearing the jungle for airstrips and ducking Japanese snipers as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

My dad’s personal recollections, many of them very funny, led me to a life-long interest in the Second World War and, by extension, American and world history.

I’m also interested in someone’s personal connections to major history-makers and events in my own lifetime.

History, told by those who were “there,” often makes it come alive through the person’s facial expressions and body language – their inflections and emotion.

Today, many years after sitting on my father’s lap and listening to his wartime stories, I find myself drawn to those who were “there” at a place and time etched in history.

Such is the case with a story I did about the time John F. Kennedy campaigned for president in the Lehigh Valley. He arrived here on the “Caroline,” his personal campaign plane, on Oct. 28, 1960 – eleven days before the election – and stayed overnight at the Hotel Bethlehem. It would be his only visit to the Lehigh Valley.

Like my father, Kennedy served in the South Pacific during the war. I vividly remember both my father and mother supporting him for president. I was only ten years old at the time, and it all seemed very exciting. I saw Kennedy through my parents’ lenses.

In fleshing out the story for FOCUS, I discovered people who had met and interacted with JFK during his visit.

People who were “there” told me what it was like to see or meet the man who would become the youngest elected president.

Then-Senator Kennedy was greeted by 14,000 people at Lehigh Valley International Airport before his motorcade traveled to Hotel Bethlehem. Dennis Costello, the hotel’s present-day manager, arranged for me to interview Edward “Ned” Book, the general manager at the time.

Ned escorted me to the Bethlehem Steel Suite where Kennedy and his staff stayed overnight.  He told me about how he and his assistant manager personally served Kennedy his breakfast the next morning.

A Kennedy staffer lifted the top off the tray and complained, “Where’s the bacon?”  Evidentially, Kennedy always had bacon for breakfast. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, swept in from the next room and interjected, “It’s Friday. He doesn’t eat meat on Friday!”  Book and his assistant wiped their brows. They had gotten it right. JFK observed the Catholic prohibition about eating meat on Friday.

Kennedy spoke at a campaign fundraiser in the hotel’s ballroom that same morning. Malcolm Gross, now a respected Allentown attorney, followed his father, the Mayor of Allentown, to the event and saw the candidate wow the crowd.

JFK traveled up Main Street in Bethlehem to speak at Moravian College. Jean Berger, now a retired history professor, met the candidate as a member of the student welcoming committee. She recalls leading Kennedy to the podium to speak.

John Castellano, Moravian College Class of 1961, recalls hecklers interrupting the candidate’s speech, and how he dismissed them coolly and efficiently.

Kathy Klein played hooky as a sophomore at Liberty High School to see JFK at Moravian. She remembers the packed gymnasium, where he spoke to an enthusiastic audience of 6,000 people.

But the piece de resistance came from Bethlehem native Dana Grubb, who came across an old 8mm film shot by his father, who took a break from his job at a company on W. Broad St. to film Kennedy waving from a white convertible going from Bethlehem to Allentown. Dana let me use the film in my story. And, by Jove, there was Kennedy as clear as day, the now-mythical figure, waving to the masses of people lining the street.

I particularly enjoyed producing this story, because it was told by people who were there. It was their story. Each witness to this particular slice of history painted a personal picture that made me feel that they were there, too.

Hopefully, our viewers can say the same.

See Grover's JFK feature from this April 2014 episode of PBS39 FOCUS.

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